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Those other friends return

It's nice to have back the six neurotics of BBC's 'Coupling' -- and now there's a baby too.

June 05, 2004|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

The British sitcom "Coupling," which had the unusual trajectory of going from British knockoff of "Friends" to failed American knockoff of itself, returns for its fourth season Sunday on BBC America.

But "this is not, I repeat, not an American sitcom!" as Steve (Jack Davenport) shouts when his ex-girlfriend Jane (Gina Bellman) unexpectedly lets herself in the front door. "Coupling" is a shallow, frantic, raunchy, sometimes surreal, occasionally flat, but mostly funny sex farce that is less "Three's Company," more P.G. Wodehouse. Friends don't pop in, but they do drop into one another's scenes, which are later revisited from another character's point of view, "Rashomon"-style. This creates mystifying scenarios and bizarre misunderstandings that, while usually meant to illustrate the yawning gulf between the sexes (always seemingly so much more unbridgeable on TV), are also intricately choreographed, impressively executed joke fandangos.

"Coupling" involves six friends, most of whom have slept with each other at some point, living, learning, harping, nagging and obsessing in hippest London. The arrangement may be symmetrically "Friends"-y, but the tone is altogether other. For one thing, no one on the show could be construed as lovable. The character of Susan, played by the lovely Sarah Alexander, comes close, but that may have much to do with the fact that Steven Moffat, the show's creator and writer, based her on his wife, series producer Sue Vertue. (And that the executive producer is his mother-in-law, Beryl.)

For another, the characters are not so much adorable stereotypes -- the dumb one, the bossy one, the goofy one, the princess -- as they are paragons of maladjustment, expertly calibrated engines of modern neurosis designed to drive one another insane. Happiness, for these six, comes down to keeping personal discomfort to a minimum. As Susan delivers their baby in an upcoming episode, Steve can't help wishing he were home with a video and a bag of crisps.

A quick primer for those coming in for Season 4: Susan and Steve, the central couple, first met while Steve was still trying to dump his beautiful but heroically narcissistic girlfriend, Jane. Somehow, Jane showed up during their date, as did Jeff (Richard Coyle), Steve's geeky, insecure friend and Susan's stammering co-worker; Sally (Kate Isitt), Susan's terminally insecure friend; and Patrick (Ben Miles), who, having dated practically everyone, also used to date Susan.

Now, Steve and Susan are having a baby, Steve can't stop thinking about John Hurt in "Alien," Sally and Patrick have started a relationship, Jeff is gone, and Jane has started dating a ditsy Jeff substitute, Oliver (Richard Mylan).

For a while, BBC America ran "Coupling" on Friday nights, and it was nice to TiVo it and enjoy it the following morning with a bowl of cereal, "Coupling" being the perfect Saturday morning cartoon for immature single adults. (I miss "Miss Match" for the same reason.) But the new time could work too, now that all our other irresponsible single friends have jumped the tube.

Anyone who harbors the secret fear that the world suddenly has been overtaken by Stepford parents will welcome the return of "Coupling." That is, possibly, until the baby opens its eyes and Steve suddenly gets mushy.



Where: BBC America

When: Premieres Sunday, 9 p.m.

Rating: The network has rated the sitcom TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)

Jack Davenport...Steve

Sarah Alexander...Susan

Gina Bellman...Jane

Ben Miles...Patrick

Kate Isitt...Sally

Richard Mylan...Oliver

Written by Steven Moffat. Producer, Sue Vertue. Executive producer, Beryl Vertue. "Coupling" is a Hartswood production for BBC America.

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